LA JOLLA, CAApril 6, 2014A study led by scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) has helped solve a long-standing mystery about the sense of touch.
The "gentle touch" sensations that convey the stroke of a finger, the fine texture of something grasped and the light pressure of a breeze on the skin are brought to us by nerves that often terminate against special skin cells called Merkel cells. These skin cells' role in touch sensation has long been debated in the scientific community. The new study, however, suggests a dual-sensor system involving the Merkel cell and an associated nerve end in touch sensation.
"In this long debate over the role of Merkel cells, it appears that both camps were right," said the study's senior author Ardem Patapoutian, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator and professor at TSRI's Dorris Neuroscience Center and Department of Molecular & Cellular Neuroscience. "The nerve ends respond to touch, but so do the adjacent Merkel cells."
The report appears in an Advance Online Publication of Nature on April 6, 2014.
In addition to elucidating the mammalian sense of touch, whose mechanisms until recently have been obscure, the findings could have relevance for certain pain syndromes in which touch sensations trigger paineven the light pressure of a shirt on the skin or a breeze against the skin.
"Touch and pain are very closely related," said Patapoutian, "and thus the characterization of these mechanisms of touch should help us to understand pain better too."
Opening the Flow
The discovery comes four years after the Patapoutian laboratory identified a protein called Piezo2 as a mechanically activated "ion channel" protein with a likely role in touch sensation.
Ion channels are embedded in the outer membranes of various cell types and nerve fibers throughout the body. Piezo2 ion channels have been thought to respond to the st
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